In 2016, the MIT AgeLab, in cooperation with the New England Motoring Press Association, conducted a study to determine public attitudes about autonomous car technology. It found that younger drivers were more accepting of the idea that cars could drive themselves without human input than were older drivers. The more mature people who took the survey liked the idea of active safety systems that help keep a car within its proper travel lane, issue side collision warnings, adapt to the speed of other cars on the highway, or brake automatically in an emergency.

MIT autonomous car technology survey 2017

Credit: MIT AgeLab 2017

This year, in advance of NEMPA’s 7th annual technology conference, the AgeLab repeated its survey. The results showed that over the past year, trust in autonomous car technology has eroded. Most surprisingly, the largest decrease occurred among younger drivers. In 2016, 26% of respondents aged 16–24 reported they were comfortable with full autonomy. This year, that number dropped to 14%. Among those 25–34 years old, 40% were comfortable with full autonomy in 2016. For 2017, that number plunged to only 20%.

Professor Bryan Reimer is an associate director of The New England University Transportation Center at MIT, an organization is whose mission, according to its website, is to “understand, manage, and creatively exploit the strategic implications of disruptive change on the future of the transportation system.” He is also the head of the MIT AgeLab that conducted the 2016 and 2017 surveys. He told the NEMPA conference the change in consumer attitudes is a danger signal for an industry that is spending billions to rush autonomous driving systems into production. The issue, said Reimer, is a lack of trust.

Part of that is a reflection of technology issues everyone experiences on a daily basis. All of us are familiar with cell phones that suddenly lose their signal, internet sites that crash, or stories in the press about hackers who have stolen millions of identities from online retailers. Certainly hacking and trouble with internet security played a significant role in the last US election. Another part of the lack of trust is the innate understanding that building systems that can perform perfectly in Boston traffic in the middle of a blizzard is an extremely difficult challenge.

Even though 42,000 Americans died in highway accidents in 2016, the press focused on two fatalities that took the lives of drivers who were driving Teslas in Autopilot mode — one in Florida and one in China. Professor Reimer told the NEMPA conference, “I could write a 50 page dissertation on why Tesla Autopilot should be banned and another 50 page dissertation on why it shouldn’t.”

Another issue the MIT survey revealed is that people are confused about how autonomous systems work. In general, drivers learn about the systems through trial and error more than any other way. Reading the owner’s manual is a close second. Dealers come in a distant third and are the subject of much criticism. When the MIT team, headed by Hillary Abraham, one of the co-authors of this year’s study, went to various dealerships and asked questions about autonomous driving technology, she and her colleagues found the sales staff was often just as confused as the customers.

Abraham falls into the “younger people” category. When I asked her if she would feel comfortable getting in a self-driving car with no pedals and no steering wheel to take her to the airport, she demurred and her body language suggested the idea was not very appealing to her. When I changed the question to ask if she would trust an app that could summon a self-driving car, her body language became much more receptive. She told me she would trust the app more than the car itself.

Reimer said the decline in trust of autonomous car technology by younger people should worry automakers. It’s all well and good to develop advanced systems, but if people don’t trust them, they won’t spend their hard-earned dollars to buy cars that have them. In fact, in this year’s survey, when people were asked how much they would spend for cars with such miraculous technology, 49% said they would never buy an autonomous car at any price. There were many reasons for that and the most common ones are summarized in the graph below.

Any good salesperson will tell you that people usually won’t buy a new product so long as they have significant questions about it. The chart above shows people have lots of questions about autonomous car technology. Manufacturers would do well to take Reimer’s data to heart and figure out how to answer those questions if they want autonomous cars to do more than gather dust out behind showrooms.

Customer confusion about new technology is not limited to autonomous driving systems. Surveys show that people are just as confused about the differences between hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric cars. Chrysler is so afraid of raising the issue that is refuses to tell people its new Pacifica Hybrid minivan is a plug-in hybrid vehicle. Questions about charging procedures and how to find charging stations abound. In general, many dealers are doing a poor job of educating people. In fact, sales representatives often give conflicting or inaccurate information when asked.

Readers of Gas2 have left comments about dealers trying to switch them from an electric or plug-in car to a conventional car — actually badmouthing the newer technology in the process. One Chevrolet dealer didn’t know his Chevy Volt cars needed to charged and got into an argument with a customer who asked why the car he was test driving didn’t have a full battery charge.

Mark Fields, the former CEO of Ford Motor Company, famously told the press earlier this year that “nobody wants to buy electric cars.” Fields was fired this week and will be replaced by the former head of Steelcase, an office furniture manufacturer. Hopefully the new guy will know enough about sales to focus on educating potential buyers instead of making fun of them.